Following is the Pecha Kucha presentation made by Sheridan Keith at the Depot on August 4, 2015. The overall theme for Pecha Kucha was “Outside the Box” which described the practice, profession, or world view of the invited speakers. Sheridan Keith, who owns Blikfang Gallery on Northcote Point, Auckland, spoke about the life and work of her remarkable mother, the artist June Black. The exhibition runs at Blikfang Gallery until 30th August.
This story is about my mother. June Black was born in 1910 and died in 2009 at the age of 99. She was a highly original artist whose work was shown in Wellington during the Fifties and Sixties alongside artists such as Rita Angus and Colin McCahon
The Blikfang Gallery in Northcote Point is currently hosting something of a survey exhibition of her work. My idea with this show is to bring her art to a wider audience and encourage a revaluation of her art
As well as works on paper and card she was fascinated with ceramics, and produced unusual and groundbreaking work. She also wrote an eccentric play and throughout much of her life kept interesting and amazing journals which are a great source of information about her thought.
Her first exhibition in Wellington in 1958 was entitled The Search for the Fabulous Idea. We are always looking for ways to make sense of our existence; June Black’s innovative plan was to visualise a character, Dr Endedus, who would lead a search party to carry out this important task.
Dr Endedus will need help in this great mission. June Black gives him a team of supporters, some of whom form his mind and body guard. There are two poets in the team, a wet poet and a dry poet. This is the dry poet.
Every expedition needs a money man, and here we have the accountant. He looks a lot like my father who wasn’t an accountant but took a scrupulous interest in the household bills. And who didn’t approve of art in any form.
We even have a legal advisor to the team. This is Dr Troce, who has been honoured for his attempt to divorce beauty from value. Other portraits depict those responsible for publicity, public relations. There is a doctor and a psychologist, and, ominously, a fault finding mission.
Here we see three team members at the foothill of the Mountain of Idle Chatta. To find the fabulous idea the team must climb the mountain. Our journey through life has become a mountain to climb. Are they skipping happily or walking a tightrope?
This is a work I made called ‘Tightrope suspended between the two pillars of oblivion. It does seem to me that between life and death we often seem to be advancing along a tightrope. In the middle section the flame of sexuality burns dangerously close to the tightrope.
Here is my work set against June Black’s The Mountain of Idle Chatter. It gave me quite a shock when I saw her figures prancing along my tightrope.
June Black worked in ceramics in a way that was utterly original and outside the usual New Zealand tradition of terracotta mugs and casseroles and the desire for beautiful stoneware bowls inspired by the Japanese aesthetic. Her work is sculptural.
Here you can see the installation at Blikfang Gallery showing June Black’s work from the fifties, including wall hung ceramics and the portraits of the various members of the expedition who set out to climb the Mountain of Idle Chatter.
Later in life, after various disappointments and setbacks she paints more for herself than any audience. The paintings are bolder and more colourful as her eyesight fades. This, painted at the age of 85, is her portrait to Support a Sagging Ego.
In her eighties she was living alone and becoming increasingly depressed. She writes in her diary of having a lemon tree growing from her heart. This idea develops into a wonderful joyous series where she pictures the lemon tree as her lover. Is this immoral? she asks. No but it is unusual.
She and the lemon tree embrace and dance in a magical way. June Black writes in her journal, When the lemon tree has left my heart will it take with it all my guilt and bitterness? Indeed it does.
Here is the picture entitled At the Height of my Pleasure with my lemon tree lover. Art has become her source of joy, an emotional bolster against old age and her increasingly poor eyesight. When I look at her lifetime of work, it is the eyes that strike me most powerfully…
Eye contact is a most primitive blikfang. We all need to make eye contact, first with our mothers and then with those we love. I think one of the reasons her work has an immediate impact is the powerful eye contact set up with the viewer. When she started a painting she would always begin with the eye.
If the eye did not come to life she would reject that painting and start another. Here the eye is formed of a newspaper collage. It gave just the right amount of dirt she said. When a work offers us eye contact it initiates an engagement with a personality
This interaction offers a human connection, we are looking at someone with whom we can share a secret thought or a smile. Art for June Black became a mental costume to wear to protect her inner self from the ugly truths of reality. To close her story I have chosen her portrait of the French poet ….
Apollinaire, one of her favorite writers. She painted his portrait so she could have his company, he hung by her bed. Throughout her very long and often difficult life making art sustained her, looking at art gave her joy. She wrote in her journal – a painting will sing for whoever will listen.